Ragged Claws: read­ers re­veal what’s worth reread­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Stephen Romei

Without fur­ther ado, here are your en­ter­tain­ing and in­spir­ing thoughts on reread­ing great books. When I pasted all the re­sponses into one doc­u­ment, I had 10,000 words to play with. The space here is 1400 words, so please for­give me if my edit­ing has re­moved the sen­tence you most adored. I want to men­tion a hand­ful of books that came up sev­eral times. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, one I’ve re­fused to reread, has fared the worst, with sev­eral reread­ers just not find­ing it funny. (There are ex­cep­tions, though, which I’ll come to.) The books peo­ple seem to love more with each read­ing are Fy­o­dor Dos­to­evsky’s Crime and Pun­ish­ment, Ge­orge Eliot’s Mid­dle­march and James Joyce’s A Por­trait of the Artist as a Young Man. And the book that has jumped nearly to the front of my de­but read list is one that has been on my shelves for decades: JP Don­leavy’s The Ginger Man.

Let’s start with the last, as the same reader, David Spears, is also a Catch-22 hold-out. He says his fa­ther, Joe, who was a med­i­cal of­fi­cer in World War II, read Catch-22 five or six times and “his en­joy­ment of the book very ob­vi­ously grew”. “The gur­gling and snort­ing would start ear­lier with each read­ing as he ap­proached his favourite lines, cul­mi­nat­ing in hearty laugh­ter and a re­sound­ing knee slap. ‘Which bit was that, Dad?’ we’d ask.” That’s lovely. David says he read The Ginger Man in the late 1960s and reread it 25 years later. He liked it a bit less the sec­ond time. Peter Ryan, how­ever, puts The Ginger Man on the eco­nom­i­cal (for this ed­i­tor) list of books he rereads. The oth­ers are Cor­mac McCarthy’s Blood Merid­ian, Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift, F. Scott Fitzger­ald’s The Great Gatsby and Gene Wolfe’s Peace. “I would ar­gue,” he con­cludes, “that those uni­ver­sal truths we seek can be found in great writ­ing.”

Nabokov takes us to a few read­ers, but first to Greg Car­man, who is sur­prised I didn’t men­tion him (Vlad, not Greg) as a pro­po­nent of the view that “only reread­ing al­lowed true en­joy­ment of any novel”. Hey, I had only 700 words at my dis­posal back then! Greg makes me laugh sym­pa­thet­i­cally by not­ing he re­cently re­or­gan­ised his books into must-read and should-read piles. “I dis­cov­ered that my joke about hav­ing a stack of must-read books taller than I am was lit­er­ally true!” With so many mus­tread books still un­read, he says, “how can I jus­tify spend­ing pre­cious read­ing time on reread­ing?” He harks back to his teenage years to re­mem­ber a book he read four times. You guessed it: Catch-22. Greg says his­tor­i­cal con­text is ev­ery­thing: he read Heller’s war satire when he was not far off his 18th birth­day, at a time when young Aus­tralians were be­ing con­scripted for com­bat in Viet­nam. “The genius of Joseph Heller was tai­lor-made for me.”

Michelle de Jong says that with “ex­treme dif­fi­culty” she has nar­rowed her reread rec­om­men­da­tions to four works, each “writ­ten in ex­quis­ite and de­scrip­tive English and all deal­ing with the com­plex­i­ties of hu­man be­hav­iour”: Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor’s A Time of Gifts, Paul Gal­lico’s The Snow Goose, all of W. Som­er­set Maugham’s short sto­ries and the “Wil­liam” books of Rich­mal Cromp­ton. Then she emailed me a few days later to add a fifth: Ger­ald Dur­rell’s My Fam­ily and Other An­i­mals.

Ron Thomas tick­les the funny bone with his pars­ing of reread­ing. “I never reread,” he de­clares. “It’s like los­ing your vir­gin­ity: you can’t do it twice.” True enough … yet Ron goes on, “But I have one ex­cep­tion, Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier”. Well, there’s a book I’m go­ing to woo! Ron con­tin­ues: “It en­trances me every time. It breaks my heart again and again. It is such a per­fectly crafted lit­tle gem.” Ron is also one of a cou­ple of read­ers who, not­ing my com­ments on reread­ing Wil­liam Gold­ing’s Lord of the Flies, sug­gests its sta­ble­mate The In­her­i­tors as a far su­pe­rior book.

Gae Robin­son says she looks for­ward to read­ing about ev­ery­one else’s reread­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, which is nice of her. She read Mid­dle­march in her 20s and im­me­di­ately put it on her “best and dear­est” book­shelf. She reread it 30 years later and … “Un­be­liev­able! I’ve never read any­thing that ob­serves hu­man na­ture and re­la­tion­ships so keenly.” She reck­ons Eliot’s novel has “the finest ex­am­ple of un­der­stated hu­mour in all of lit­er­a­ture”: the pas­sages where “Dorothea is tour­ing the house that she will live in af­ter her mar­riage to the dread­ful Mr Casaubon”. Mid­dle­march is also sin­gled out by Phil Haber­land, who read it 35 years ago. He still re­mem­bers the “anally re­ten­tive Casaubon”. Af­ter read­ing about reread­ing here, Phil walked into a sec­ond-hand book store and found a “well-thumbed copy” for $1. “$1! For all the im­pend­ing mem­o­ries and imag­i­na­tive ex­cur­sions that I once knew. I can’t wait!” Hope you en­joy it, Phil. Mal­colm Ross, too, in­cludes Mid­dle­march on his list, along with Leo Tol­stoy’s War and Peace, Wil­liam Make­peace Thack­eray’s Van­ity Fair, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice and Robert M. Pir­sig’s Zen and the Art of Mo­tor­cy­cle Main­te­nance. “My gen­eral rule,” he says, “is if a book seems less on reread­ing it never was ‘great’.” He puts Catch-22 in this lesser camp, as does Mark Demetrius, who at 16 found it bril­liant and “stom­ach-clutch­ingly hi­lar­i­ous” but at 60 liked it less and thought the hu­mour “te­diously repet­i­tive and cir­cu­lar”. Joyce’s Ulysses, though, “just got even bet­ter”. Mark asks a thought-pro­vok­ing ques­tion about reread­ing: “Which are the more re­li­able barom­e­ters of qual­ity? Is it the ones you make when you’re younger and more naive but (ar­guably) more in­tense and re­cep­tive to new ideas? Or are you a bet­ter reader when you’re old and jaded, but hope­fully a bit more worldly, with sharper crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties?” Mark says he has a vested in­ter­est in vot­ing B, and he’s not alone there. “Now that I’m in my 70s,” says San­dra Tay­lor, “I of­ten reread books that I have en­joyed in the past. As ex­pe­ri­ences and con­texts change over the decades so do our re­sponses to books.” San­dra men­tions a re­cent episode of ABC TV’s The Book Club on which Amer­i­can writer Vi­vian Gor­nick said she’d read DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers three times be­tween the ages of 20 and 35, and each time she iden­ti­fied with a dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter. The book, she said, changed her life. David Hen­der­son, too, thinks he’s reached a point “where I may spend the rest of my life reread­ing”. His best ex­am­ple of “reread­ing a book and find­ing so much more than was ev­i­dent in the first read­ing, 30 years ago” is Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez’s One Hun­dred Years of Soli­tude. He also praises Robert Bolano’s epic The Sav­age De­tec­tives, Elias Canetti’s Auto-daFe, Juan Rulfo’s Pe­dro Paramo and the short sto­ries of Jorge Luis Borges. And Catch-22.

Carolyn Court has three books that “I reread ever now and then”: Pa­trick White’s The Aunt’s Story (“When I first read it at school I found it im­pen­e­tra­ble. Since then I have read it a few times and love the po­etry, at­mos­phere and the crazy cac­tus gar­den.”); Wil­liam Faulkner’s As I Lay Dy­ing; and, more re­cently, These De­mented Lands by Scot­tish writer Alan Warner. Karen DeSouza also has a short­list: “I am the proud owner of the com­plete works of Rumer God­den and I have read them all four times over so far.”

Well, no sur­prise here but I’m al­most at 1400 words and I’ve yet to in­clude ev­ery­one. I think the best so­lu­tion is to con­clude this col­umn next week. There are lots more books to dis­cuss, in­clud­ing Crime and Pun­ish­ment and one of my favourites, an Aus­tralian war novel that we’ll keep un­der wraps till then. For now I’m go­ing to fin­ish with two rebels. Louise John­son: “On reread­ing — I hate it. I only ever reread a book for pur­poses of school ex­ams or univer­sity pa­pers. Noth­ing beats the thrill of read­ing some­thing pre­vi­ously un­read. It far out­weighs find­ing an odd small gem one may have missed on first read, if one rereads.” Mau­rice Whe­land raises the stakes fur­ther: “There is risk in this de­bate that peo­ple feel duty-bound to read. And also a ten­dency to­wards self-con­grat­u­la­tion among some of the well-read. Although sto­ries dif­fer, great books deal with time­less is­sues.” He says con­tem­pla­tion of such is­sues is most im­por­tant, “not the amount of read­ing any per­son has done”. “Some­times, too much read­ing is a bad thing.” Charm­ingly, he ends with a read­ing rec­om­men­da­tion: Wil­liam Ha­zlitt’s es­say On Read­ing Old Books. Well, that’s a chal­lenge we’ll con­tinue next week.

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